Molly is a “new bunny” in Atlanta and loves her job selling sex, domination, and striptease shows to men. So says an ad on one of the popular websites listing “escorts” or “dates” in the U.S. But chances are Molly has been forced into this work. She’s likely a victim of sex trafficking—kidnapped, brainwashed, or blackmailed into prostitution. The proof is right in the ad, if you know what to look for.
“The sad truth is that it’s happening in every city in America,” says Kara Smith, a senior targeting analyst with DeliverFund, a group of former CIA, NSA, special forces, and law enforcement officers who collaborate with law enforcement to bust sex trafficking operations in the U.S. The online ad for Molly provides clues that she’s performing against her will and is not an independent sex worker who keeps all the money she earns. For instance, she’s depicted in degrading positions, like hunched over on a bed with her rear end facing the camera.
“Any self-respecting woman, even if she is a prostitute, she’s going to sell herself as a hot commodity,” says Smith. “She’s going to sell herself with a little bit more class, and she’s going to be very picky” about the kind of clients she attracts.
Bruises and bite marks are other telltale signs for some victims. So are tattoos that brand the women as the property of traffickers—crowns are popular images, as pimps often refer to themselves as “kings.” Photos with money being flashed around are other hallmarks of pimp showmanship.
Seasoned experts like Smith can spot these markers, but they no longer have to do it all manually. About a year ago, DeliverFund got an offer from a computer vision startup called XIX to automate the process. The company’s software scrapes images from sites used by sex traffickers and labels objects in images so experts like Smith can quickly search for and review suspect ads. Each sex ad contains an average of three photos, and XIX can scrape and analyze about 4,000 ads per minute, which is about the rate that new ones are posted online.